By Karen Stewart
Originally published in Newsweek on January 30, 2020.
ill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, knows that he should be paying a lot more in taxes. He has said as much for years, but this week he made a critical addendum, warning that philanthropy simply isn’t a substitute for taxes. Rather, he argues, a fair taxation system—one that places the highest tax burden on those earning the most—is the only “scalable solution” to the kinds of problems America is currently facing. And he’s absolutely right.
Coming from one of the most prolific philanthropists in modern times, this is a monumental statement. While Gates opines that philanthropy can still be a force for good, he now states individual giving just isn’t enough. A vibrant economic system,” he says, “depends on setting expectations for who pays how much.”
Just a few days into the new decade, Australia is currently in the throes of the worst bushfire season in recorded history with over a billion animals dead, millions of acres burned, dozens of lives lost, and horrifying ecological destruction that will linger for years. Celebrities and activists all over the world have fundraised millions for the crisis.
While these efforts are noble, such individual acts of giving are band-aids over bullet wounds in the context of climate change. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that only massive, fully-funded government action can stop this devastation. And as one of the richest men in the world himself knows, governments are not, and cannot be, dependent on the unreliable whims of the individual. The consequences of relying on those whims are playing out before us.
Systemic problems require systematic solutions. It’s a simple enough concept, but one that our politicians too often only acknowledge when it’s politically convenient.
When a hurricane wreaks havoc, we expect the federal government to deploy emergency services, as the only entity capable of doing so at the scale required. But even though a cancer diagnosis or being laid off are just as devastating and out of individual control as a bushfire of a hurricane, when we discuss things like healthcare or social safety nets, our political debate quickly shifts to how to pay for it—as if this country has no money at all.
This is the truth that Bill Gates knows, and it is the truth that the Patriotic Millionaires loudly and proudly proclaim to lawmakers, media pundits, and voters alike: we have ample money, it’s just that too much of it is sitting dormant in the hands of wealthy folks like me. All we have to do is tax it.
If we don’t set clear, fair expectations for what our citizens should pay back into the country that allowed them to get rich in the first place, we will never be able to tackle the myriad of issues that this new decade brings.
Every decade is a chance to invent new ways of thinking, to shift attitudes by changing hearts and minds one-by-one until a new political epoch is formed. In the 2020s, I believe we must connect these stories of the tragic inadequacy of individual ability to the power of our collective, systematic action.
Our problems are too multi-faceted, too complex, and quite frankly, too many in number to rely on the empathy of a few. No one alone can solve climate change. No one alone can provide healthcare to millions. No one alone can fix the destabilizing levels of inequality that threaten to create a permanent underclass in America. A fair taxation system isn’t a panacea to these problems, but it is undoubtedly the place to start.
Dr. Karen Seal Stewart is a former certified financial planner, built her wealth in the real estate industry, and is a member of the Patriotic Millionaires.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Read the full piece in Newsweek.